Thursday, 12 September 2013

Duelling Divas - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford

It all began in 1935, with a film called Dangerous, but the feud never ended - not even when one of the protagonists was dead.

Bette Davis was 27 years old, already a successful actress and married to an actor whose own career had never taken off. Her co-star was Franchot Tone, a 30 year old actor with matinee idol looks and a near aristocratic pedigree. Bette's marriage was passionless and dead, and Franchot awakened fires in her that she neither wanted, nor was able, to quench. Unfortunately, he was spending his lunch breaks in the arms of newly divorced MGM headliner, Joan Crawford, returning to the set smothered in her vivid red lipstick. In this, their first battle, Crawford won - something Bette would neither forgive nor forget. Tone and Crawford married shortly after filming ended, and Bette was left to lick her wounds.

Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone
Joan Crawford was well known as both bisexual and promiscious. She is said to have remarked of Bette, " I wouldn't mind giving her a poke if I was in the right mood." Apparently, she tried on a number of occasions to add Bette to her stable of alleged Lesbian liaisons - said to include Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Barbara Stanwyck among others. But Bette was a confirmed heterosexual and rebuffed her every time. Joan didn't take kindly to it. Yet more fuel was added to the fire of their mutual hatred.

At the Oscars in 1935, Bette wore a simple blue dress, convinced she wouldn't win the Best Actress Oscar for which she was nominated. Much to Joan Crawford's ire, she did - and Crawford was even more angered by the sight of her husband embracing her rival. As others were congratulationg the winner, all Joan would say in her favour was, "Dear Bette! What a lovely frock."

In the 1940s, Crawford moved from MGM to Warner Bros - Bette's studio - and demanded the dressing room next to hers. Bette was conscious that her own star was on the wane.Great parts were difficult to come by - and now she had a bitter rival competing with her on her own doorstep.

Joan Crawford won the eponymous role in Mildred Pierce, her first film for Warners and, as if to rub more salt into a gaping wound, she went on to win the Best Actress Oscar that year, along with a $200,000 per film, seven year contract with the studio. It is to be hoped someone ensured that all sharp objects were kept well out of Bette's reach while Crawford was on the lot!

While they may have fought and clawed each other for every significant role, neither could fight the inevitability of time marching on. Both stars were ageing in an era where there were even fewer decent parts for women over 40 than there are today. By the early 1960s, both were viewed as box office has beens. No one wanted to know. Until, that is, Crawford found a film they could both star in.

In an interview with Louella Parsons, the famed and feared Hollywood reporter told Davis that Crawford had suggested they might make a film together. She asked Bette what her reaction would be. Bette told her in no uncertain terms that such a venture would only happen "When hell freezes over". Evidently, by this time, she had sensed the approach of the fourth ice age because, after much deliberation, she agreed.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane tells the story of an ageing former child star - Baby Jane Hudson - played by Davis, who still dresses in ringlets, topped off by grotesque make up. She lives in a decrepid mansion with her wheelchair bound, crippled sister - played by Jane Crawford. Baby Jane takes great delight in abusing the woman who can't fight back.

Studio after studio turned the film down until, eventually, producer director Robert Aldrich went ahead independently, on a tight budget and with a six week shooting schedule. He must have had easier stars to work with. The two constantly needled each other and their mutual enmity even led to actual physical assault. In a scene where Baby Jane repeatedly kicks her sister, who has fallen from her wheelchair, the ankle strap from Bette's shoe gashed Joan's scalp, leaving an injury requiring three stitches. bette insisted it was an accident but Joan took her revenge in another scene, where Baby Jane has to drag her across the floor. Unbeknown to Davis, Joan had secreted a heavy weightlifter's belt (containing lead) under her dress. Bette nearly threw her back out, while Joan calmly stood up and walked off set.

Through all of this and down the decades, both stars maintained there was no hatred or rivalry between them. No one believed them.

Whatever Happened To Baby Jane went on to become one of Holyywood's most celebrated films and Davis was nominated for her second Oscar. Her rival didn't receive a noimination and when the Oscar went to Anne Bancroft, it was Joan Crawford who accepted the award on her behalf. For her part, Bette was convinced Joan had lobbied against her, robbing her of what she considered to be her rightful award.

Another film, pairing the two - Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte - went into production. Again Robert Aldrich produced and directed and he and his two co-stars looked forward to making the sort of fortune they had reaped from their earlier success. But this time, the Davis-Crawford feud proved to be the deal breaker. Joan's marriage to Tone was ancient history and since then she had been married to the chief executive of Pepsi Cola. Bette Davis gathered the cast and crew on the set and ordered only Coca Cola to be served. Bitchy pettiness continued and eventually Joan Crawford contracted a rather convenient bout of pneumonia, withdrew from the film and Olivia de Havilland stepped in.

Curiously, both women had more in common than they would have wished. Both were married four times. Both had children who grew up to hate them. Both disinherited those children. In Crawford's case, this was her adopted girl and boy, Christina and Christopher. Christina responded by publishing a vitriolic bestselling biography of her mother, Mommie Dearest, which painted a horrific picture of a violent, abusive, sadistic and alcoholic mother. Bette's daughter, Barbara Davis Hyman (known as B.D.) also wrote a biography of her mother. My Mother's Keeper portrays Bette as "a mean-spirited, wildly neurotic, profane and pugnacious boozer, who took out her anger at the world by abusing those close to her".
with Robert Aldrich

Joan Crawford died in 1973, at the age of 71. In 1987, Bette Davis was on the set of her last film, The Whales of August, and launched into a bitter tirade against the long dead star. Director Lindsay Anderson ordered her to stop. He had been a friend of Joan's. Bette's response was to blink those expressive eyes and say, "Just because a person's dead doesn't mean they've changed."

Bette died in 1989. She was 81.

Maybe the similarites didn't end with number of husbands or shared animosity with offspring. Both of these great actresses were flawed characters. Maybe when they looked at each other, it was a little like staring into a mirror. And neither particularly liked what they saw. 


  1. Oh my. What can I say today? WONDERFUL. As for Baby Jane.... 'I'm writing a letter to Daddy.'
    Have you read the book about them? It was the very best of stuff.

    1. Oh yes. And I think 'Baby Jane' is one of the most chilling films ever made. I can feel my flesh creep as I watch it. And when Jane serves up that rat...